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Bitterbrush: A Tale of True Grit

By Catherine Barry

Emelie Mahdavian's film provides a glimpse into the working world of two young women in the rugged mountains of Idaho. Opens June 17.

There’s nothing like moving from the Bay Area to an off-the-grid cabin in remote Idaho to give one a new perspective on the complex human relationship we have with time, nature and land. So it was for filmmaker Emelie Mahdavian who calls the move she made with her husband some years back “utterly transformative,” opening up a new appreciation for the workings and challenges of the land.

The Emmy, Peabody, and Sundance Award-winning filmmaker’s documentary film “Bitterbrush” (playing at Smith Rafael this week) casts a gentle eye over the often harsh world of range riding and cattle herding. The film follows two twenty-something women riders, Colie Moline and Hollyn Patterson, as they work out their last season together, herding in the vast and challenging environment that is remote central Idaho.

Not a Marlboro Man in sight and with a Bach-heavy soundtrack, this is a uniquely female gaze on the work of two intriguing young lassies in Cowboy Country.

SF/Arts caught up with Mahdavian, a former professional dancer and now Assistant Professor of Film and Media Arts at the University of Utah. She chose to explore the work of “two women in the gig economy” by weaving together her favorite filmic elements of movement, space and sound. The former professional dancer’s hat presents itself in some beautifully crafted dancelike scenes, such as the scene where Hollyn patiently and skillfully breaks in a colt (see official trailer) and several long shots of the pair on horseback as they go about their work, with a stunningly gorgeous backdrop of snow-capped mountain ranges of Idaho.

Hollyn Patterson and Colie Moline in Magnolia Pictures "Bitterbrush."
Images © Alejandro Mejia courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

This film is not for everyone. It’s not action-packed or suspenseful in the slightest, and we learn little about the characters, but it offers a close-up look at a grueling but satisfying lifestyle that’s not familiar to many of us. The relationship between two young friends still in their formative years is secondary to the larger display of the skill and tenacity shown by this top-of-their-game duo as they round up hundreds of cattle over hundreds of acres in all kinds of conditions. Scenes of the team (they have at least six dog helpers) in a blizzard offer an intimate glimpse into what it takes to commit to and hold down this gig, day after day.

According to Mahdavian, a lot of female ranch riders are immensely skilled and highly sought after for this kind of work. “They are so incredibly good at what they do,” she says. “The results are borne out by lower death rates and higher health factors among animals.” Why then, Mahdavian asks, is it such a struggle for independent, skilled women to keep a foothold in this business. “I wonder how these women can succeed if they are not kept in the business in the traditional roles of wife, daughter or sister of ranch men. How do they earn the right to manage or be in charge?” In one of the few close-up-and-personal spots in the film Colie ponders a future without the means or resources it takes for independence. Being religious-minded she is trusting her maker to provide, but it's kind of sad to think there is an uncertain future for such highly skilled and committed workers as evidenced in Mahavian's 90-minute portrait.

Mahdavian’s previous film “After the Curtain” follows four women dancers in Tajikistan battling cultural norms and celebrating their art and expression in the face of social reproach. Colie and Hollyn’s world couldn’t be more different but more than a thread connects their stories. It seems this young filmmaker (recipient of DOCNYC’s 2020 “40 Under 40”) has carved out a signature as an almost invisible witness to the lives and struggles of women on the outside. Mahdavian’s upcoming films are keeping within that vein - one documents a group of mostly female glacier-exploring scientists and another follows the creative process of LINES ballet.


"Bitterbrush" - Official Selection 2021 Cannes Film Festival; World Premiere 2022 SFFILM Festival. Now showing at Smith Rafael Tickets


Catherine Barry
Catherine Barry
Editor at SF/Arts
Editor at SF/Arts
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